In a time of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it food fads, one trend that’s garnering a groundswell of support from the world’s best chefs—alongside many of Melbourne’s leading lights—is foraging. And with names like Rene Redzepi and Ben Shewry leading the charge, you know this is no mere flash in the frying pan.
If you’re like me, the word foraging likely conjures images of slightly hippie dippie types scouring windswept beaches and verdant meadows for edible sea grasses and wild mushrooms that hopefully won’t send dinner guests to St Vincent’s. However, after chatting to a handful of enthusiastic urban foragers, I’ve discovered there’s a wealth of flavour to be discovered much closer to home, in local parks, neighbours’ backyards (make sure you ask permission first!), and even alongside cruddy old train tracks.
According to 2013 MasterChef winner Emma Dean, foraged foods appeal to chefs because they are the ultimate in seasonal eating. “If it is not growing wild, then it won’t be seasonal,” she says, adding “it’s fun knowing that what you are eating is unique to that time of the year.”
Adam Grubb, co-author of The Weed Forager’s Handbook: A Guide to Edible and Medicinal Weeds in Australia, cites a number of reasons we should all be donning Marigolds and wielding secateurs. “There's a lot to love about foraging and foraged foods. The process of foraging takes you into parks and wild places, a far better experience than the supermarket… You don't have to even paywave, as weeds and wild foods are totally free.”
And it’s not just about being stingy. “Edible wild plants are on average more nutritious than the plants we grow or pay for. And culinarily they can be exceptional,” says Adam.
“I'm not suggesting it would be possible to support seven billion people with foraging alone, but on health, environmental and pleasure levels, we'd do well to get back in touch with our hunter-gatherer sides a bit, and supplement our diets with wild foods.”
Logical, yes. But this thinking has taken a while to reach the masses: “I grew up in an Italian family here in Melbourne and I have foraged since I was a child so it is second nature for me,” says fellow foraging guru, guide and author, Doris Pozzi of Edible Weeds. “It had its down sides. The kids at school would laugh at me for having 'grass' sandwiches!”
Using Adam’s logic, it’s really the kids not eating grass sangas that should have been the punchline. “Foraging has definitely become more popular lately with our best chefs, and the broader public. But it's really not eating foraged food that has been the bizarre trend of the last few decades or centuries. Until agriculture, for 3.5 billion years of evolution, it was all we did to feed ourselves. That's 99.9997% of evolutionary time. So the latent skills and desire to forage is deep in our bones.
“It's worth noting that things that are essential to survival tend to feel good. Think eating and sex. Ok, maybe lower your expectations a little. But the process of foraging does feel remarkably relaxing and natural.”
Feast of Merit’s Jarryd Goundrey does little to dispel my newfound suspicion these foragers are a frisky bunch. “Having a veggie patch is having a relationship, where foraging is like a one-night-stand,” he says, before likening the hunt for often obscure ingredients to ‘chef porn’.
According to Jarryd, “Foraging is an avenue that allows the discovery of ingredients and flavours that are oftentimes rare to come across, making the entire process from ground to table a journey… Not only is it exciting when you do come across something, there is always the uncertainty of whether or not it will be there again.”
So, exactly what here-today-gone-tomorrow gourmet delights can be found around the mean streets of Melbourne? Well, loads, actually.
“Right now in the summer season you can find aromatic wild fennel, the succulent and crispy purslane, the cooking greens fat hen, amaranth and mallow, the bitter but beneficial dandelion, the berries of blackberry and black nightshade, the young pads and fruit of prickly pear, amongst many others,” says Adam.
Chiara Head Chef Johan Van Der Walle’s team is currently foraging (and serving) fennel pollen, vine leaves, wild blackberries and figs, found in West Footscray and an inner-city carpark. Emma’s also been stocking up on fennel leaves and fennel pollen. “Fennel is very distinctive and it is found along most train lines. The chopped leaves are great in a salad. The pollen is great on fish, and I have discovered that the pollen is also great on cream cheese icing!”
She’s also getting excited about the upcoming change in season, when “Slippery Jacks and Golden Pine mushrooms will start popping up around the bases of pine trees!”
Once thing our foraging fanatics agree upon is the importance of doing your research (with Doris or Adam’s books, natch) or going with someone in the know to make sure your meal is memorable, for the right reasons.
“Your own garden or that of friends is the best place to forage,” advises Doris. “Otherwise, public places like parks and creeks are abundant for foraging.”
If you’ve got the urge to dig around in the dirt and uncover some free, tasty treasures, keep an eye out for urban foraging tours around Melbourne. Adam runs Edible Weeds walks and workshops throughout the year (the next two are taking place at Merri Creek in May), while Doris’s tours run in Brunswick and the Yarra Valley.
I can also vouch for Mornington Peninsula’s Mushroom Tours (where you get to taste foraged fungi over a glass of damn fine vino at Mooroduc Estate winery).
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Image credit: Kate Berry.